A new restaurant, Joe Benny's Focacceria, opened last week in the Little Italy storefront that was formerly home to Max’s Empanadas.
The specialty at Joe Benny's will be the “true” Sicilian-style pizzas, which are made with focaccia, topped with ingredients like eggplant, mushrooms, prosciutto and sausage.
"I wanted to bring something from my region of Sicily to Little Italy," said the owner of Joe Benny's, Joseph Gardella. “This spot has everything I need."
Gardella said the intimate space was well suited for his vision of a focacceria, a style of eatery very popular in and around Messina, where his family is from. A first-generation American, Gardella got his introduction to the focacceria — and his nickname, “Joe Benny” — on childhood visits to Sicily
He is leasing the storefront space from Nino Germano, the owner and chef of La Scala Ristorante. Germano said that having Joe Benny’s in the space will be good for Little Italy.
"When there’s more activity, it’s good for the neighborhood," Germano said.
Gardella said Joe Benny's will, in addition to focaccia, serve beer and wine, along with salads and small plates of Italian cheeses and cured meats.
And Joe Benny's will also serve meatballs.
Gardella said a 2013 Baltimore Sun column by Dan Rodricks about a spate of restaurant closings in Little Italy was partly responsible for his putting meatballs on the menu.
"[M]ost of all," Rodricks wrote, “Little Italy needs to be grounded in the fundamentally great meatball. ... Build a great meatball, and they will come."
“I took that as a challenge,” Gardella said. “The meatball's back in Baltimore.”